I’ve been reading up on the pre-history of the telescope recently (hence my reviews of Eileen Reeves’ Galileo’s Glassworks and Albert van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope), but have omitted to mention why I thought this might be of relevance to the Voynich Manuscript.

The answer relates to Richard SantaColoma’s article in Renaissance Magazine #53 (March 2007) with the title “The Voynich Manuscript: Drebbel’s Lost Notebook?”, which claimed to find a persuasive familial similarity between the curious jars arranged vertically in the pharma sections and Renaissance microscopes, specifically those described or designed by Cornelius Drebbel. His (updated) research also appears here.

The biggest problem with Voynich hypotheses is that, given 200+ pages of interesting stuff, it is comparatively easy to dig up historical evidence that appears to show some kind of correlation. In the case SantaColoma’s webpage, this category covers the stars, the hands, braids, caps, colours, four elements, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and handwriting matches suggested: none of these is causative, and the level of correlation is really quite low. All of which is still perfectly OK, as these parallels are only presented as suggestive evidence, not as any kind of direct proof.

It is also tempting to use a given hypothesis to try to support itself: in the 1920s, William Romaine Newbold famously did this with his own circular hypothesis, where he said that the only way that the manuscript’s microscopic cipher could have been written was with the aid of a microscope, ergo Roger Bacon must have invented the microscope. All false, of course. Into this second category falls the “cheese mold”, “diatoms” and “cilia” of SantaColoma’s webpage: if these are to used as definitive proof of the presence of microscopy in the VMs, the level of correlation would need to be substantially higher. But these parallels are, once again, only presented as suggestive evidence, not proof.

Strip all these away, and you’re still left with the real meat of SantaColoma’s case: a set of striking similarities between 17th century microscopes and the curious devices in the Voynich Manuscript’s pharma section. Even if (as I do) you doubt that all the colouring on the pages was original (and upon which some of SantaColoma’s argument seems to rest), it’s an interesting observation.

Having said that, no actual proof or means of proof (or disproof) is offered: it is just a set of observations, resting upon a relatively little-tested tranche of history, that of the microscope. Can we do better? I think we can.

Firstly, modern telescope historians (I’m thinking of Albert van Helden here, though he is far from alone in this respect) now seem somewhat dubious of the various Janssen family claims: and so I’m far from comfortable with placing the likely birth of the microscope with the Janssens in 1590. As Richard SantaColoma points out, Cornelius Drebbel is definitely one of the earliest documented microscope makers (from perhaps a little earlier than 1620, but probably not much before 1612, I would guess).

Secondly, it is likely that the power of the lenses available for spectacles pre-1600 was not great: Albert van Helden calculated that a telescope made to della Porta’s (admittedly cryptic) specification could only have given a magnification of around 2x, which would be no more than a telescopic toy. I would somewhat surprised if microscopes constructed from the same basic components had significantly higher magnification.

Thirdly, the claimed presence of knurled edges in the VMs’ images would only make sense if used in conjunction with a fine screwthread, to enable the vertical position of an element along the optical axis to be varied: but I’m not sure when these were invented or adapted for microscopes.

All in all, I would assert that if what is being depicted in the VMs’ pharma section is indeed microscopes from the same family as were built by Drebbel from (say) 1610 onwards, there would seem no obvious grounds for dating this to significantly earlier than 1610: even if it all came directly from Della Porta, around 1589 would seem to be the earliest tenable date.

The problem is that there is plenty of art historical data which places the VMs circa 1450-1500: and a century-long leap would seem to be hard to support without more definitive evidence.

As always, there are plenty of Plan B hypotheses, each of which has its own unresolved issues:-
(a) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 16th century inventor/tradition
(b) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 15th century inventor/tradition
(c) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, they just happen to look a bit like them
(d) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, but were later emended/coloured to look like them
(e) it’s all a Dee/Kelley hoax (John Dee was Thomas Digges’ guardian from the age of 13)

Despite everything I’ve read about the early history of the telescope and microscope, I really don’t think that we currently can resolve this whole issue (and certainly not with the degree of certainty that Richard SantaColoma suggests). The jury remains out.

But I can offer some observations based on what is in the Voynich Manuscript itself, and this might cast some light on the matter for those who are interested.

(1) The two pharma quires seem to be out of order: if you treat the ornate jars as part of a visual sequence, it seems probable that Q19 (Quire 19) originally came immediately before Q17 in the original binding.

(2) The same distinctive square “filler” motif appears in the astronomical section (f67r1, f67r2, f67v1), the zodiac section (Pisces, light Aries), the nine rosette page (central rosette), and in a band across the fifth ornate jar in Q19. This points not only to their sharing the same scribe, but also to a single (possibly even improvised) construction/design process: that is, the whole pharma section is not simply a tacked-on addition, it is an integral part of the manuscript.

(3) Some paint on the pharma jars appear original: but most seems to be a later addition. For example: on f99v, I could quite accept that the palette of (now-faded) paints used to colour in the plants and roots was original (and I would predict that a spectroscopic or Raman analysis would indicate that this was probably comprised solely of plant-based organic paints), which would be consistent with the faded original paint on the roots of f2v. However, I would think that the bolder (and, frankly, a little uglier) paints used on the same page were not original.

Put all these tiny fragments together, and I think this throws doubt on one key part of SantaColoma’s visual argument. He claims that the parallel hatching inside the ornate jar at the top of f88r (the very first jar in Q17) is a direct indication that it is a lens we are looking at, fixed within a vertical optical structure. However, if you place Q19 before Q17 (as I believe the original order to have been), then a different story emerges. The ten jars immediately before f88v (ie at the end of Q19) all have vertical parallel hatching inside their tops, none of which looks at all like the subtle lens-like shading to which SantaColoma is referring. For reference, I’ve reproduced the tops of the last four jars below, with the final two heavily image-enhanced to remove the heavy (I think later) overpainting that has obscured much of the finer detail.

This is the “mouth” of the top jar on f102r: the vertical parallel hatching seems to depict the back wall of a jar, ending in a pool of faintly-coloured yellow liquid (probably the original paint).

 

This is the mouth of the bottom jar on f102r, which appears to have vertical parallel hatching right down, as though the jar is empty near the top (or perhaps its contents are clear).


This is the top jar on 102v, enhanced to remove the paint. I think some vertical hatching is still visible there: it would take a closer examination to determine what was originally drawn there.

This is the bottom jar on f102v, again heavily enhanced to remove paint. Vertical hatching of some sort is visible.

The Voynich Manuscript meme continues to tap at our cultural windows, asking politely to be let in from the rain. And sometimes people do…

For example, here’s a knitted squid sitting on a copy of Gawsewitch’s “Le Code Voynich” (don’t be put off by the LiveJournal 14+ age warning, it really is a knitting page).

Over at evilbore, Eric P is getting cross about how the VMs is sneaking in under the cultural radar: “What’s caused this subconscious societal permeation of this obscure text?” he asks, before linking to Voynich News (good call!)

Or alternatively, here’s someone called Malcolm starting a game of Lexicon based around a (fictional) deciphering of the VMs. Lexicon is an RPG where players take on the role of cranky scholars building a faux Wikipedia (one letter at a time, hence the name) around a fictional world, while trying not to cite themselves. Errrm… just like the real Wikipedia, then. 😉

Norbert R. Ibanez has posted up some thoughts on the VMs in ‘English’ (with a PDF you can download): though his ideas may be basically OK, I don’t like his automatic translator much. 🙁

And finally, I’ve had some visitors from a posting about my VQ (“Voynich Quotient“) page put up on the Yog-Sothoth forums (dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu players). One poster mentions “Keeper’s Companion Vol. 1, p.63“, where it presumably links the VMs to the Necronomicon: add that to the ever-growing web of Voynich references out there.

Shopping in the Renaissance“, Evelyn Welch [finished, still need to write review]

Astrology: a history“, Peter Whitfield [about half-way through, lots of good stuff]

Elizabeth’s Spy Master“, Robert Hutchinson [80 pages in, but a bit of a dour character to read much about]

The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader”, Keith Whitlock [Still not yet started this, beginning to wonder if I ever will]

Decipher” Stel Pavlou [33 pages in, a nice bit of superficial fun, shame I don’t have a beach holiday to take it on]

“History of Magic & Experimental Science” Vol. IV (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries), Lynn Thorndike [20 pages in, but everything else has to go on hold while I read it]

Over the years I’ve spent looking at the Voynich Manuscript, I’ve become progressively more accustomed to its ways, to the point that it is no longer an enciphered grimoire to me, but simply a book we cannot as yet read. When learning to juggle, the primary force which keeps the ball in the hand is not gravity but fear: all the while people see the VMs as a dark, Necronomicon-like repository of ancient evil (basically, confusing unreadable with unspeakable), their fears prevent them from grasping what it actually is.

Yet there’s still something odd about how the Voynich Manuscript is rooted, upon what it stands: specifically, it seems to my eyes to have one foot in early modern European (specifically Northern Italian, I would say) culture and the other in late medieval Byzantine culture. Though I’m still unable to satisfactorily express how this works, what I can say is that many of its herbal drawings have a structural quality that is neither medieval European (slavishly copied, overstylised, unrealistic) nor Renaissance European (emblematic rather than symbolic, abstract). The closest match I’ve found is in Byzantine herbals, many of which are drawn from life, but which have a kind of secret inner numericality: not Kabbalah, but topology / geometry.

I’m therefore always on the lookout for good stuff relating to Byzantium, but its 1000-year history is fascinating for many other reasons: the rich seam of inspiration the Romantic poets found in the marvellous decay of Venice was perhaps but a shadow of the irony and wonder to be discovered in Byzantium’s own history.

And so a book I’m looking forward to is “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin (Princeton, 2007), which seems to have exactly the kind of overall historical narrative all the fragments of Byzantine history I’ve ever read lacked. There’s a helpful review here: the hardback’s £25 RRP is a little hard to swallow, for sure, but what can you do? (Errrm, wait for the paperback?)

I’m just collecting my thoughts after an exhilarating lecture by William Kiesel (the publisher and editor of Ouroboros Press) on magic circles at Treadwell’s in Covent Garden (Christina’s post-lecture blog entry is here). William presented a long series of images of magic circles (manuscripts diagrams, woodcuts, paintings, etc) from the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century, including many of John Dee’s strange diagrams.

Voynich Manuscript, page f57v (the ‘magic circle’ page)

The reason I’ve been trying to find out about magic circles for years is because, as you can see above, page f57v in the Voynich Manuscript apparently contains one. Or (more precisely), whatever f57v actually contains, it seems on the surface to follow the constructional rules and layout of genuine magic circles. However, this is hard to research because the topic of magic circles has attracted relatively little academic interest over the years, Richard Kieckhefer’s (1997) Forbidden Rites (an in-depth study of a 15th century necromancer’s manual) being one of the few honourable exceptions. Which is why I was so excited about the lecture.

Having said that, there are many things about f57v that cast doubts on its ‘magic circle-itude’. For example, I could find no other magic circle with the directional spirits given faces rather than simply named: depictions in every other magic circle I had seen were instead abstract diagrammatic renderings (swords, pentacles, rings, sigils, etc), and names of the directions (to help orient the circle, the first thing any proper necromancer would want to do). But even more brutally: when magic circles are all about the power of names, why ever would someone want to replace them with images?

And so… after the lecture, I asked William for his thoughts on f57v (which, delightfully, he had looked at before). As far as the directional faces go, he agreed that this was pretty much a unique feature: though a tiny number of magic circles he had seen do have sigils shaped to broadly resemble faces, that would seem to be a completely different strand of development to that which we see in the VMs. Overall, even though he did note that it was intriguing that the postures of the four “people” on f57v were all different, the main impression the page left him with was that each of the four faces faced in a different direction (though he didn’t know what that meant).

On the train home, I sat there wondering what this might have caused this, letting all the various aspects swirl around me (though, no, I didn’t have any of Treadwell’s wine that night). And then all the bits clunked into place, with that sound very familiar to any Simpsons fan: “d’oh!

I should explain. Perhaps the biggest trap Voynichologists fall into is that of overthinking issues: when many complex explanations for a given phenomenon exist, sometimes simple ones gets overlooked, or (worse) rejected for appearing too simple. And the simplest explanation here is that, because almost every magic circle has the directions of the compass written on it, that would be both the first thing you would want to keep and the first thing you would want to hide. And so it seems highly likely to me that the four faces on f57v code for N/E/S/W. In short, I think that (like the VMs’ “Naked Lady Code” I described in my book) the four faces employ a misleadingly elaborate way of enciphering something very simple – the compass directions. But which is which – and how – and why?

  • The left figure is facing forward-left
  • The top figure is facing backward-right
  • The right figure is facing forward-right (and holding a ring / egg)
  • The bottom figure is facing backward-left

But how do these four map onto N/S/E/W? The first thing to notice is that magic circles are very often written in Latin, with the four points written Oriens [E], Meridies [S], Occidens [W], Septentrio [N]: and so an encipherer would only need to hide one in order to hide them all.

While I don’t know for sure… I do predict that the nose and eyebrow of the left figure’s face was elaborated around an “S” to denote “Septentrio” [i.e. North]: and that the only useful information is that a ring (as rings are far more common than eggs in magic circles, The Black Pullet notwithstanding) should be placed opposite it [i.e. South]. The flower-like shape at the centre is probably an elaborated shape around the central o-shapes, which probably denote locus magistri, the place where the exorcist / conjuror / master of the magic circle should stand. Finally: might the heavily-drawn straight line on the shoulder of the ring-carrying person denote a sword? Very possibly.

 

Voynich Manuscript, page f57v – four central figures

This doesn’t answer every question about f57v (how could it?): but it does give a good snapshot of my current thoughts on how (beneath all the deception) it is actually a magic circle (though perhaps not as complex a magic circle as you might initially think).

Part 2 will move on to the VMs’ other magic circles…

I’m a lousy fiction reviewer, probably for two main reasons: (1) creative writing classes taught me how to spot when writers are cheating (in order to make me a more honest writer myself); and (2) years of Voynich Manuscript-related research has made me constantly alert for infinitesimal details upon which the answer might just hinge.

Put these two together (a lie-detector and an adrenaline-fuelled eye for detail), and you have a completely unfair toolkit for reading novels, simply because novels are very rarely actually “novel” – they’re more often an assembly of ideas.

Take Scarlett Thomas’ “PopCo” (FourthEstate, 2004), for example. Superficially, it’s like a 500-page anagram of my life (BBC Micro / chess / maths / philosophy / Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem / videogames / business / marketing / cryptography / cryptology / secret history / Voynich Manuscript / etc), together with a load of other untaken doors (Bletchley Park / SOE / crosswords / vegetarianism / vegan / Go / low-level drug-use / homeopathy / etc), and it’s written quite well: so I really should be engaged by it, right?

Problem #1 is one of construction: the first tranche is basically Douglas Coupland (specifically Microserfs), the second tranche Iain Banks (his fiction rather than his science fiction), then a bit of Martin Gardner’s puzzle columns and Simon Singh’s The Code Book: there’s a kind of teenage girls’ magazine section along the way, and a rather clunky historical pirate romance, before it all flips out into Thomas’ fictional take on Naomi Klein’s No Logo… Yet to me, a book needs to be more than merely a collage of influences, a narrated scrapbook: but perhaps that makes me too old-fashioned for contemporary fiction. If you wanted to be kind, you might compare it with Kurt SchwittersMerz, carefully arranged collections of found objects (forged Merz pieces get placed on eBay all the time): but sorry, Thomas is no Schwitters.

Problem #2 is the lack of parents. The other day, while watching (the original TV series of) Batman on BBC4, my four-year-old son asked me where Batman came from. Well, I said, a man called the Joker killed both Bruce Wayne’s parents, and when a bat bit him in the caves beneath his mansion, he somehow gained a super crime-fighting ability. OK… so where did Spiderman come from? Well, I said, after both Peter Parker’s parents died, he was bitten by a radioactive spider, and gained amazing spider-like powers. My son paused, looking back at the screen. But what about Robin, he asked. No, don’t tell me, I know: both his parents were killed… Before he had a chance to say “(and he was bitten by a radioactive robin)”, I suggested we look Robin up on Wikipedia (though sadly he was basically correct). In PopCo, the main character Alice Butler is basically Crypto Girl, a sort of Elonka-lite: her mother dies and her dad runs away, and she gains her m4d cryptological and prime factorisation sk1llz from her grandad. Put it that way, and it all looks a bit comic-book thin, doesn’t it?

Problem #3 is that I’m wise to novelistic conceits. I know that in a cryptological novel, someone called A[lice] is going to communicate with someone called B[en], who will pass on what she says to someone called C[hloe]: and this kind of spoils it. Incidentally, Ron Rivest denies that he used “Alice” and “Bob” (in his 1978 paper introducing RSA public-key cryptography) in any kind of homage to the film “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (which is actually a bit of a shame). It would also have been cool if PopCo’s Alice had been born in 1978 and openly named in crypto homage to Ron Rivest’s paper, but I think she’s too old (is she 29? I can’t find the page, rats!).

Problem #4: cringeworthy logic/maths puzzles. To give texture to her story, Thomas brings together loads of lateral puzzles and mathematical ain’t-that-amazin’ fragments, the kind of thing that you sometimes hear being trotted out at student parties. For example:-Two men go into a restaurant and order the same dish from the menu. After tasting his food, one of the men goes outside and immediately shoots himself. Why? (p.109) The explanation given for this in PopCo is ludicrous (it involves an albatross and a dead child, don’t get me started): but why is one not simply a food-taster for the other? Fugu: mmm, delicious… hey, what’s that trainee doing in the kitchen… aaaarrgggh!

Problem #5 (probably the biggest of all for a Voynichologist) is that PopCo uses the Voynich Manuscript as a MacGuffin (or do I mean a “Philosopher’s Egg MacGuffin”?). Alice’s grandfather spends years on the VMs, and even gets her to count the words and letters on each page (and later to factorise large numbers): perhaps washing his car would have been a better way to earn pocket money. Alice says that she’s learnt so much from the journey, from the search for the heart of the VMs: but really the manuscript is no more than occasional wallpaper for the narrative. The Beale Papers also make a brief appearance: my guess is that Scarlett Thomas would have used them as the central hook, had there been more than a paltry $20million dollars’ worth of treasure linked to them: the alternative “Stevenson/Heath” pirate cipher mystery Thomas constructs is a bit thin when held up against real ones, regardless of the size of its haul.

…and so on. I feel in a bad place: I really wanted to like PopCo, but all I can do is whinge (and I haven’t even moaned about her merging Alberti’s and Vigenere’s cryptography, etc). Other reviewers (such as here and here) seem basically to like the book: and compared to Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress (where I wanted to kill all the main characters by the end of Chapter One, all the minor characters by the end of Chapter Two, and the publishers by the end of Chapter Three) it’s Shakespeare.

Cryp-lit like this requires a certain kind of technical devotion from the reader, and if you are a diehard crypto-geek PopCo is something you really ought to read. But only if you’ve read the good stuff (like Neal Stephenson’s excellent Cryptonomicon) first.

OK, so it’s not exactly Wikileaks: but following on from my very recent review of Albert van Helden’s monograph, a (how shall I put it?) well-placed insider has dropped me a line…

Apparently, the American Philosophical Society is planning to republish “The Invention of the Telescope” in an “augmented edition” next year (2009, the International Year of the Telescope), for which van Helden has been asked to put together a new introduction. My guess is that this will come out at about the same time as the book on Galileo’s sunspots which Eileen Reeves and van Helden have been working on (which itself was delayed by Reeves’ “Galileo’s Glassworks“, according to her acknowledgments section).

However, I should flag that a big problem with long publishing pipelines like this is that it only takes one really interesting piece of work to come out to make everything in it seem instantly outdated: and with the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescopic breakthroughs imminently upon us, right now there are doubtless several (2? 5? 10?) historians out there finishing up their shocking alt.history revisionist accounts of the telescope’s genesis.

For me, the most surprising aspect of this whole story is that van Helden’s work has lasted 31 years without being significantly overturned (as far as I can see): but in the field of ideas, things can change (and they often do, rapidly). We shall see what happens next…

Incidentally, I wish I knew of a book like the first half of “Galileo’s Glassworks” that covered the literary prehistory of the microscope, and/or an equivalent of van Helden’s monograph covering the microscope’s birth. Was the romantic lure of seeing tiny things ever as great as that of seeing afar?

All of a sudden, I’m transported Proust-like to the Trigan Empire comic strip in the “Look & Learn”s of my childhood, where one storyline revealed whole subatomic galaxies to explore (might Oli Frey have drawn that?)…

It may seem a little odd to be reviewing a 31-year-old monograph, but stick with it, you’ll see where I’m going soon enough…

The whole sequence starts with the review I posted here of Eileen Reeves’ brand new “Galileo’s Glassworks: The Telescope and the Mirror” (2008, Harvard University Press). Though overall very fascinating, one aspect of this book confused me: why it should be structured in two so radically different (dare I say almost schizophrenic?) halves. You see, while the first 50% covers the amorphous literary pre-history of the telescope, the second 50% deals with the textual minutiae of who told Galileo what and when, and what Galileo probably believed in 1608-9: so the book swings sharply from a super-broad cultural reading to an ultra-close textual reading. An uncomfortable mixture.

Now, the first half particularly intrigued me, so it made sense for me to move on to Reeves’ major source for it: Albert van Helden’s (1977) brief (but magisterial) “The Invention of the Telescope”. If you want your own copy, there are still a couple under £25 available on BookFinder.com (though be quick, the rest are over £50).

Van Helden (for whom Dutch is his first language) had started out by translating Cornelis de Waard’s relatively little-known book “De uitvinding der verrekijkers” (The Hague, 1906), which laid out a lot of new evidence on the genesis of the telescope as we know it in the Netherlands: much of the story revolved around the town of Middelburg (which held one of the largest glassworks in Europe), with nearly all key documents written in Dutch.

But de Waard’s conclusions – that the telescope had probably been invented in Italy circa 1590, that Raffael Gualterrotti had built such a device in 1598, and that one of which had surfaced in Holland circa 1604, before being replicated by various spectacle-makers and inventors in 1608, leading to an unseemly patent rush – seemed to van Helden not quite to be supported by the evidence. And so he decided to take a fresh look at the documents: and his 1977 monograph was the result.

Having said that, van Helden’s final conclusions are practically the same as de Waard’s, though not quite as specific: that Giovanbaptista della Porta’s claim to have built a telescope (to which his “Magia naturalis libri XX” (Naples, 1589), Book XVII, Chapter 10, p.269 circumspectly alludes) probably does hold up, as does Gualterrotti’s claim (perhaps more weakly), though given that the best magnification possible pre-1600 would (argues van Helden) have been only around 2x, the resulting device would have been unspectacular – a telescopic amuse-bouche, rather than the Galilean feast that was to come. And so van Helden concludes that Italians (specifically della Porta) probably did invent the telescope, though they didn’t realise it at the time.

Thirty years on, and I think van Helden’s monograph stands as a great piece of writing: clear, lean, thoughtful, honest. Best of all, the majority of it (pp.28-64) consists of transcriptions (and English translations) of the important sections of all the relevant documents; so if you don’t like his conclusions, feel free to go right to the primary sources (they’re pretty much all there), knock yourself out. Perfect.

It should now be clear what I think happened with “Galileo’s Glassworks”. The elephant in the room (who was not mentioend, but around whom all the furniture was carefully arranged) was van Helden’s monograph: this forms a bridge between Reeves’ two distinct sections. And so if you add the two books together, you get what amounts to a single coherent work, going from medieval and early modern notions and claims of vision-at-a-distance and burning mirrors (Reeves), through to the myriad claims and counterclaims of the Dutch “inventors” (van Helden), through to Galileo’s reception of the new device (Reeves again). At only 231 pages (with endnotes starting on p.167), Reeves’ book originally felt to me to be about 60-70 pages short: how curious to find that van Helden’s monograph exactly fits the dimensions of that lacuna.

In her acknowledgments, Reeves says that she “benefited most of all… from the intellectual guidance and constant friendship of Albert van Helden, whose own work… is the basis of and inspiration for my own” (p.220). I’d say that while Reeves’ book gives context and consequence to van Helden’s monograph, reading the former without the latter doesn’t really make sense. In fact, I would strongly recommend to Harvard University Press (who publish “Galileo’s Glassworks”) that they negotiate with the American Philosophical Society to reprint Reeves’ book with van Helden’s excellent (but scarce) work as an appendix. Now that would be a book truly worthy of the International Year Of The Telescope.

Years ago, I was told that in Greece, gamblers who pull off a big coup are feted: there, making money for nothing is apparently seen as a kind of heroic alchemy, something to which everyone should aspire. And because hoaxes – stunts carried out not for art’s sake, but to swindle – surely fall into this category just as much as many of the historical alchemists’ “projections”, it should be obvious why some Voynich researchers should link the swindler/alchemist Edward Kelley with the manuscript.

However, one good reason to be wary of Voynich hoax hypotheses is that, in the real world, the people (and the stories) behind hoaxes do tend to surface: as Shakespeare wrote, “but at the length truth will out“. Tricky things tend to be collaborative, even if in only a loose way: I can say from my experience in the games industry that being a “lone gunman” on a high complexity project is a hard gig, like being an uomo universale with a spaceship to build. Anyway, where’s the fun in conspiring on your own?

Regardless, all of this hoax-based free association was triggered by the article this month by Philip Mantle on the people behind the famous “Alien Autopsy” hoax. As you’d expect, all kinds of collaborative technical trickery was required to make it seem even remotely feasible: and the main technician behind the story (Cypriot-born video wizard Spyros Melaris) is now emerging to tell his story.

There’s a longer transcript of the interview here: but if you simply have to know more, you’ll probably be more interested in Spyros Melaris’ book “ALIEN AUTOPSY: The True Story“. It’s a bit pricy (£37.50), comes with a DVD, though doesn’t yet seem to be available: email AATrueStory@DIGInetUK.com for more details (allegedly). Confusingly, there’s a (different) 2006 DVD out there with exactly the same name, presented by Eamonn Holmes: and you already know about the Ant & Dec “Alien Autopsy” film, so I’ll skip past that too. Just so you know.

The punchline here is that, in the fullness of time, the only certain way to get participants in a big hoax to keep quiet is to kill them all, Hollywood stylee… and I don’t really think that happened with the VMs. It also seems to me that Kelley gives the impression of having an enormous ego and a big mouth, particularly near the end of his life (he was a golden knight, after all), and if there was one iota of self-aggrandisement to be had out of his association with a strange manuscript, he would have done his best to extract it. But the record is silent.

It must seem like I’m fixating on everything apart from the VMs itself, but sometimes that’s how blogging works: and, indeed, how life itself works. This June 2005 entry from visual poet Geof Huth’s “dbqp: visualizing poetry” blog takes a confidently sideways angle on the manuscript from most people.

Geof talks of the Voynich’s “hypnotic beauty” and wonders whether “the draw of this book is that we must treat it as a child treats a picture book: We read the images and look at the text.” Yet I happen to believe that there is more visual poetry to be found in the VMs than even he thinks, many miles beyond the limited horizons of “The Friar and the Cipher” (which he had just read).

Geof also suggests that the VMs might have influenced the DIY cultural anarchist mIEKAL aND. Certainly, there’s some visual overlap with the fonts here (one grabbed from the Rohonczi Codex), but as for the VMs’ influence on the “crossmedia beliefware” here, his Zaum Gadget and other hypertoys at Qazingulaza, and according to this page, “THE DRIFTLESS GROTTO OF WEST LIMA, a permanent public grotto/park/installation which when finished will feature a bird-operated time machine in a 25 ft blue glass tower“, I really couldn’t say.

I’d never really thought of it before just now, but to me the Voynich does have the same kind of deep structure as poetry: that ineffable feeling of polished granite blocks effortlessly grinding past each other in an unseen topology, far below the surface. And a kind of coruscating anti-etymology too, that elegantly hunts down and destroys the patterns our magpie eyes feverishly search out.

Burning flames, dead stars humming:
Rhythm of a dance? Each thing
Is lost inside this packed-in future –
The one you tried to grasp so much.
We throw our words, our empty hopes,
And foolish dreams upon this pyre,
To keep you living in your fire.

Make of it all what you will.